Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Santa Fe Opera: L'Italiana In Algeri & Madama Butterfly

Aviatrix Isabella (Daniela Mack) fixes plane while feckless Taddeo (Patrick Carfizzi) frets.


Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Were it not for the frequency of their appearance at Santa Fe, more fuss might be made over two Italians whose works are presented this season. Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, if judged by how often its production has been lent to other companies, is the single biggest hit in the company’s history. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an incontestable masterpiece coming at the very beginning of the 20th Century, capstones the spectacular four-century reign of Italian opera in Western culture.

A vain Mustafà (Scott Conner) thinks he's in charge.
Although Rossini claimed he composed it in 18 days, the version of The Italian Girl in Algiers seen this season had been fine-tuned later by the composer, and it shows. Its superb music and whiplash wit exploit human foibles and toy with the oft-treated clash of cultures between Western Europe and Turkey. (Algeria was part of the Ottoman empire in the early 19th century.)

Rossini’s veneration of Mozart is revealed in the “rescue opera” masterpiece with the Italian master deriving plot devices and musical numbers from the Austrian’s Abduction from the Seraglio. Even Rossini's also beloved Joseph Haydn makes referential appearances in the score here and there.

The stage-savvy Rossini adds his own twists too, of course: no less than three males are bedazzled by a leading lady, giving his ensembles novelty and complexity; the first act finale is particularly fabulous. Adding contemporary relevance, Rossini’s heroic contralto (here a mezzo) is a proto-feminist who rescues her tenor lover from enforced servitude, not the other way around. Comedic twists and turns have kept bellies quivering for two centuries since the work’s Venice premiere in 1813.

Mustafà one-ups Mussolini.
The action has tomboy Isabella (comely mezzo Daniela Mack) and her clingy companion and would-be lover, Taddeo (bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi), coming from Italy to a despotic Algiers to rescue Lindoro (affable tenor Jack Swanson), an Italian lad and favorite slave of the local Bey, Mustafà (bel-canto bass Scott Conner), whose bald and thrust-jawed Mussolini resemblance seems perfectly timed for the current era of proto-fascism. Mustafà is married to the neglected Elvira (dulcet soprano Stacey Geyer), whose lamentations are given comfort by her confidante, Zulma (sympathetic mezzo Suzanne Hendrix). Meanwhile, Corsair captain Haly (virile baritone Craig Verm), stands ready (well, almost) to thwart the Italian lovers’ escape.

The evergreen production premiered at Santa Fe in 2002, and though widely travelled to other houses, as mentioned, this is only its second production here at its home base. Originally directed by the late Edward Hastings, his 2017 passing prompted warm remembrances in this year’s program book.

Clever staging updates the original 18th century shipwreck to the 1930’s, where Italians Isabella and Taddeo are forced to make an emergency landing of their biplane in the sands outside Algiers.

Taddeo cons the vain Mustafà.
Director Shawna Lucey has a playful aviator-clad extra introducing the updated device from the first notes of the overture. She walks the aisles of the Crosby Theatre  holding a model biplane overhead. Pizzicati bass-viols and an exotic oboe announce the Algerian setting. Robert Innes Hopkins’ open-backed stage has palm trees framing the hills of New Mexico, apt stand-ins for those of Algeria. As the overture concludes, the plane “crash-lands” at the back of the stage’s sand-colored floor.

A pop-up set then lifts its hinged floor to open the action inside Mustafa’s extravagant palace -- the brilliant (and efficient) scene change designed by Robert Innes Hopkins. A motley array of courtiers, slaves, and family members are festooned in David C. Woodlard’s over-the-top arabesque costumes, radiating more colors than an ice-cream parlor, and made even more appetizing bathed in Duane Schuler’s Sahara-bright lighting. Susanne Sheston’s hearty male singers importune the audience to put their troubles away and have fun.

Isabelle keeps three men panting for her.
Clad in khaki-hued Amelia Earhart pants, Isabella soon establishes who’s in charge as she emerges from the disabled plane, quite abled herself to handle both the harem and its tin-pot Bey of Algiers. Mercurial power relationships emerge, with a constant balancing act of her three male suiters, none even a distant match for Isabella’s stratagems.

It’s a work of constant action and reaction, with Rossini’s genius for blending melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumental coloring, as he winds up the comedic tension. Horns announce Mustafa’s lasciviousness. Beguiling woodwinds coo the juvenile Lindoro’s petulant adoration.

Rossini engineers a surprising and magical mood shift when the two lovers prepare to return to Italy. Isabella wraps herself in an Italian flag, and even with the interpolation of anachronistic comic Italian stereotypes -- Sofia Loren, chianti wine, pizza, cappuccino, and salami -- an unexpectedly disarming mood of patriotic sentiment ensues. Having discovered Mustafà’s vanity to be an even more potent force than his libido, Isabella, aided by her admirer Taddeo, distracts him with the vacuous honor of “Pappataci” as she escapes with Lindoro in a nearby, conveniently placed, hot-air balloon.

In an evening of great theatrical comedy and stylistic singing, Corrado Rovaris's orchestra added its own brand of sparkle and shine. This was the Santa Fe Opera at its absolute best.


Cio-Cio-San (Ana Maria Martinez) in her Nagasaki home, with newly installed telephone poles.

I had seen the original production of the late Lee Blakeley’s Madama Butterfly in 2010. (Blakeley, like Hastings above, was fondly remembered in this year’s SFO program book.) Although not announced in the program notes, the set subtly references the era of American Naval Commodore Perry, whose “gun-boat” diplomacy in a Japanese harbor introduced modernity, along with trade, to the then hermetic country in 1854.

At Pinkerton’s arrival in the first act, Japan is still ancient and pristine. When he returns a few years later, the country is festooned with modern telephone poles, whose stark utilitarian ugliness contrasts with the traditional home of Cio-Cio-San nearby. It’s also a jarring visual cue to the distance in cultural backgrounds of the two protagonists.

This performance was the first night of the scheduled cast change of the two principals. Joshua Guerrero’s resonant Pinkerton was paired with Ana Maria Martinez’s powerful Cio-Cio-San. While well sung, the few moments this staging had them together left little time for emotional connection. Not helping, the amiable Guerrero’s stocky Mediterranean look, in his ill-fitting uniform, muted his bearing as the preternaturally callous American Naval officer.

Walking the fine line between the subdued style of a Japanese lady and the assertiveness of a strong-willed woman willing to break codes, Martinez leaned perhaps a tad heavily on the latter. Her Japanese-ness lacked vulnerability, while Pinkerton's American-ness lacked nonchalant arrogance. Without the visual and behavioral cues of their contrasting characters -- after all that’s the dramatic point of the star-crossed cultural pairing -- the tragedy of their unbridgeable agendas seemed too much like garden-variety incompatibility.

Trouble confronts Pinkerton in the final scene.
The remaining cast were all strong singer-actors. Nicholas Pallesen, continuing from the earlier casting, made a particularly sympathetic Sharpless. One almost hoped he could later have paired with Butterfly. Megan Marino's Suzuki was a fierce and feisty defender of her mistress. Together, they almost stole the show from their more prominent counterparts. John Fiore's idiomatic reading of the score reinforced in the orchestra the pathos of this immortal work.

The final scene had a deft dramatic twist: Trouble (the six-year-old Paulino Rivera-Torres) defiantly picked up the blade with which his mother had just committed suicide and brandished it menacingly at his father, the returning Pinkerton.


Performances reviewed: July 25 - L’Italiana in Algeri, July 30 - Madama Butterfly. All photos are by Ken Howard, for Santa Fe Opera.

Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]

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